As one of the pioneers of the industrial movement, Ministry have always danced to the beat of a different drum machine. In recent years the band has been closely connected with the caustic cyber-metal scene, but when Ministry emerged from Chicago in the early 1980s, they had more in common with Kraftwerk. Ministry even toured with Depeche Mode and Culture Club before changing their synth-pop tune in 1986 with the harsh electronics of Twitch. The band abandoned much of their following in the process.
This type of destructive reinvention became a recurring theme as the band developed over its next three albums. Ministry's latest record, Filth Pig, is their most abrasive and metallic yet, a showcase of crunching riffs and disjointed rhythms that exhibits few of the electronic histrionics that once defined the group. But while the record may not be traditionally industrial (aside from distorted vocals and the occasional sample), Ministry maintain the antagonistic industrial ethos with which they were raised. Ever since the late '70s, when Throbbing Gristle first converted the mechanized sounds of the assembly line into low-fi recordings and Einstürzende Neubauten started wielding jackhammers and chain saws onstage, industrial music has thrived on the will to provoke. For Ministry, provocation is a priority that comes just after eating.
Judging by lyrics like "Inside a world full of shit/You're still an asshole to me" ("Reload") and "I sleep with both eyes open" ("Filth Pig"), frontman Al Jourgensen seems to view this country as an increasingly oppressive place, overrun with conservatives trying to take away his individuality. As a result, he seeks to buck the system, to defy expectations and funnel his most carnal, depraved impulses into his inflammatory music. Unlike many industrial-metal artists, whose insurgency is as synthesized as their keyboard lines, Jourgensen is truly a rebel without a pause, as a trail of departed band members and a recent arrest for heroin possession can attest.
But don't write Ministry off as impulsive deviants who churn out albums between flag burnings and fixes. The band is obsessive when it comes to recording, which explains why Filth Pig and the group's last record, 1992's Psalm 69, were delivered well behind schedule. So is Filth Pig the incendiary album that fans have been holding their breath for? Not really. The group's new emphasis on quirky, midpaced time signatures and dense, distorted riffs may prove too metallic for industrial fans and too convoluted for metalheads.
In the past, Ministry administered sharp, simple electronic shocks and memorable guitar bursts. The new disc is far messier, exploding like a shotgun blast and leaving too much damage to take in easily at one time. Syncopated rhythms, layered guitars and overdistorted production abound, providing a menacing atmosphere but very little melody. The record also lacks dynamics. Instead of rising and dipping in volume and intensity, the songs lash out in a feral blitzkrieg and maintain their exhaustive pace throughout. While this technique worked in the past on hyperactive cuts like "Thieves," "Stigmata" and "Just One Fix," most of the tracks on Filth Pig are far too slow and unwieldy to provide any sort of adrenalin rush.
For the most part, the songs on Filth Pig follow one of two formulas. Ministry's most compelling trick is to construct a wall of grinding, repetitive rhythm and then sprinkle in volleys of production effects to prevent the tracks from becoming monotonous. Sometimes it works, as on "Reload," a frantic fuzz-fest that melds buzz-saw guitars with high, tinny ones and features a jarring machine gun sample over the bridge. It also proves effective on "Crumbs," which is driven by a disarming, barbed riff and enhanced with the sound bite "I never had a life/I don't even know what life is." But even an intriguing sample that sounds like an electric harmonica can't save "Filth Pig," which trudges along like a Black Sabbath outtake. "Dead Guy" contains some oppressive guitar tones, but the staccato rhythm sounds too much like Helmet, and "Useless" lives up to its title by throbbing aimlessly into a deep, black hole.
Elsewhere, Ministry toy more insidiously with tempo and structure. "Game Show" starts with a syncopated riff that sounds like something from Metallica's Master of Puppets before dissolving into a loose flurry of drum fills and atmospheric guitar squalls. And "The Fall," a daunting combination of creepy sound effects and slug-paced beats, might work well on a John Carpenter soundtrack, but it doesn't hold up as a full song. The only cut with a shot at MTV's Buzz Bin is a spirited reconfiguration of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," which amalgamates a deep distorted bass line, clicking electronic percussion, jangling acoustic guitars, ominous curls of feedback and Jourgensen's trademark howls.
Filth Pig is not the infectious follow-up to Psalm 69 (with its college-radio hit "Jesus Built My Hotrod") that many fans hoped it would be. It's a harsh, challenging disc that seems aimed to divide and destroy rather than unite. In all likelihood, that's just the way Jourgensen wants it. As his existential forefather Albert Camus once wrote: "The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly." Having created an album that could easily alienate the vast majority of their audience, Ministry have become their biggest fans and their own worst enemies. (RS 728)
(Posted: Feb 2, 1998)
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